Nepal II (More Pictures)


Kung Fu Kids, Siphal Children’s Protection Home, Kathmandu


Lili and Roshan, CP Center/School, Pokhara


Lili and Suman, Children Welfare Home, Pokhara


Man’s Clan, Kathmandu


Nepalese Pornography, Swayambonath (“Monkey”) Temple

Nepal Part I (Long Time Coming)


Amrit

Children Welfare Home, Pokhara

Pooch and Prayer Flags


Eli @ Shanti World Peace Stupa


Children Welfare Home


Buddha Lili

I’ve been to Nepal twice in the last two years and, aside from the Spanglish scratching in a worn notebook, I haven’t yet committed anything about it to the medium of writing. Sitting down to do this just now, my studies and chores for the day done, the Mediterranean sun burning a hole in my forehead as it dies over my terrace, I thought about merely transcribing the crooked script of those stained pages. But it didn’t feel right—it felt false or unfair, like the uncut toke of that place is too much for a blog. I need to push something through the filter of myself—the filter that falls into place in me when I step back into the “west.”

But Nepal for me is perhaps deserving of more consideration than the other topics I fling sloppily around this blog—or around my hard drive or writing life for that matter. I feel a reverence not so much for the place itself but for what it has occasioned in me and for what it is that my wife and her partners (and now, humbly, also me) are trying to do there. I feel myself bracing against this effort but maybe that’s a resistance that will never go.
I know that I’m not ready to try to write about our work there, the infinite complexities, sorrows and joys of humanitarian projects. Anyone who is interested in learning more, please dig our website and/or engage me about it. I’m thrilled to sing the praises of Sathi Sansar (www.sathisansar.org), but I respect it too much to tangle it up in the messy caprice of my “literary” writing just yet.

All I really have are images and moments, horror and beauty, which is what composes that place and so will have to suffice to weave this essay together.

**

We walk through streets black as tar. Two cows, horns locked, moon-sized eyes dueling, twist each other’s bony frames violently off balance, stumbling through flourishes of litter. Sorrowful hounds skitter out of the way of their hooves. Everything is hovel and temple. The more experienced European aid workers I’m with chat and laugh and practice mangled Nepali, discuss the next day’s packed schedule in a patchwork of French, Catalan, Spanish, and English. But these people have humped backpacks through Asia, stepping through these cultures like ecologists through a virgin forest, learning roughly what to and what not to expect. But I’m American, informed by danger, violence, suspicion, and hard and sketchy times in places like Managua and Los Angeles and Caracas. My eyes are not yet adjusted to safety. The cherry that floats below the whites of a soldier’s eyes, above the barrel if his rifle, is a warning stripe. The quick motions of dogs and rats in the invisible gutters startle me. My back feels broad and vulnerable. And then I see him. A man in a kind of nook off the street, laying sideways on a pile of rubbish, a fluorescent bulb inexplicably burning above his dead and rolled-back eyes, his twisted grimace that he presented to his end. And though I know that somehow this vision is to be confirmation not of my own instinctive fears but instead the opposite, an assurance that things are so safe and natural here that you may lay down and die peacefully, I feel the cold enter me. And it does not leave even when I find myself on the hotel’s sofa while sunburned Aussies and Brits with five o’clock shadows slam glasses together and dance desperately to “The Same Old song,” drunk less on Everest beer than on the wonder of being strange and secure.

**

The clink of forks on plates betrays both the silence of the dinner—normal and comfortable to the Nepalis, still awkward as nudity for us—and the lack of practice that our hosts have with utensils. It is for our comfort that they are not using fingers for the hacked pieces of goat and buffalo we consume. Laxmi, our emigrant friend who runs a shop in Barcelona and who has now insisted on dinner with his vast family in Kathmandu, demonstrates his learning of Western culture by making conversation.

“So,” he says, casually but thoughtfully, sucking the last meat off a bone, “I been watching news and I see that Saddam Hussein is going to hang out.”

**

A crowd in Kathmandu is impossible to describe to anyone who has never been to the east. It would require a different measurement of density to qualify. It is all that Lili and I can do to not lose one another and yet not tangle our limbs in a culturally inappropriate way as public affection even between couples is not well received. Diesel braids a headache in my brow. We step around a mound of ginger root and then a stalled rickshaw, our fingers linked like a game. When her finger goes cold and unhooks, I turn around in the press of bodies. On her face is a pale haunt that I’ve not seen before in the features of my olive Spanish bride and it’s alarming.

“What is it?” I say moving closer to make sure the current of people does not split us on the boulders of Suzukis.

“I think I just saw a monster, cariño,” she says and though I try to smile, she’s not trying to bring levity to this and all the doctor of her being has fled. “The woman’s face…it was upside down. It was inside out.”

**

The trio of overly sweet milk-based deserts is sliding slowly down our throats, coating the raucous mixture of fatty flesh, incendiary spices, loamy “dal baat,” and tiny shards of bone that you inevitably swallow as a carnivore in Nepal. The Nepali smile is on everyone, the room is as silent as usual and the only logical conversation now is about what we’ve just consumed.

“Really delicious,” I say, cheerfully, trying not to move too much. “That goat was richer than I imagined goat would be.”

Our friend, Shree, by a multiple of ten the most westernized of our acquaintances there, leans forward in his black leather jacket, rubbing his hands over his plate to get rid of the remnants of the sweets.

“Yes,” he says, apropos of very little, “we generally do not eat goats that…those goats that have still their testimonials.”

Lili and I blink for a few seconds before the laughter bubbles up, disturbing the mother lode of odd cuisine in our guts. I get control of myself.

“Testimonials?” I ask.

“Yah,” says Shree, like it’s a dumb question, “testimonials.”

“Testicles?” I say.

“Yah—that. Testicles.”

Lili and I permit ourselves restrained guffaws but what we lack in volume comes out of our eyes in the form of tears. I don’t know why we are trying to hold back—the Nepalis appreciate our mirth even if they don’t fully understand. Or, as is the case with most of the people around the table, don’t understand at all. Trying to maintain the thread of conversation, Lili says,

“So…you cut them off before you eat the goats? Their testicles?”

Shree shakes his head, definitively, opens his hands in front of him.

“No—no. We just…how do you say? We just sort of clap.” He brings his palms together in a clap. Baffled, I mindlessly follow suit (could be the raksi, a vicious home-brewed liquor in me), clapping my hands.

“You clap?”

“Yah—like that. Just…clap.”

He claps again. Lili stifles a laugh and grabs my arm.

“You mean…smash?” I ask

“Sure,” Shree says, like I’m splitting hairs, “like that—smash.”

**

We’re back in the hazardous, strong currents of Nepali pedestrians on what is turning out to be along trek to the university to register our friend and partner Monica, who’s still in Barcelona, in a course in rural development for the following semester. Shree is several yards ahead of us, cutting a wake through the throngs in his Shaft jacket with his easy strides. Lili and I are trying to discuss strategies for the upcoming meetings and interviews we have to do for the clinic she is opening in a nearby slum, but the strictures of movement are making it tough. I fall behind, preferring to be in a position where I can keep my eyes on her progress.

We’re on a pedestrian overpass arching across King’s Road. Below there is the carnage of traffic without the existence or notion of traffic laws. Three wheeled electric carts compete courageously if foolishly with semi trucks which are losing stripes of oil and large chunks of metal every time they lurch. Suzuki taxis beep and dash like mice amid it all. I’m still partially in my Central American mode, keeping my hand rested atop my wallet in my pocket and watching the multitudes brushing past for a straying hand when I see him. A boy, maybe six or seven. He’s dressed in slacks and a V-necked sweater, oddly enough, and his hair is combed. But it’s highly possible that he has never had any other clothes because he is Alone—I know it like you know you’ve been gut punched. He sits, rocking, in the middle of a tattered blanket, amid the slicing legs of thousands of strangers. He has no eyes. There is no other way to say this. There are only holes but there are no eyes.

I trip, and stumble, and right myself and do not share what I have seen when my wife turns to see if I am ok.

**

We have been visiting with the family of Lajali, the director of our NGO in Nepal. As do all professionals in that culture, she comes from a high caste, originally that of Tantric Buddhist priests. We have spent a mostly charming four hour stretch with her mother (no English), her brother (in and out of the house, a little English), their dog (in a tiny kennel and all bloodlust for foreigners), and her niece, a year and a half year old darling named Kripa. Kripa was terrified of me at first with my blue eyes and blonde beard but over the hours I’ve won her over enough that I can sneak a stroke of her jet black hair and she’s once offered me a piece of her chocolate bar.

It’s getting late and our untouchable western appetites for meat and booze are rising in us so we say our farewells to the family in the long, cold hallway of the two story house that passes for a veritable mansion in Kathmandu. As we tie our shoes, Kripa hurries over to kiss Lili goodbye and flash a quick, shy look square into my face. Lajali hoists the little girl and we learn the words for aunt and uncle in Newari.

“Say goodbye, Kripa. Say goodbye to your Spanish Caci. And to your American Caca.”

**

It’s been a slow, assiduous climb up out of the Kathmandu valley. Lajali and another member of our board, Krishna, have picked us up in a tidy Toyota sedan for a six-hour drive to our project site in Pokhara. Wilding groups of smiling but tire-burning students have blocked major arteries in the capital, so the journey to the outskirts of the city itself has taken quite some time. The sun is high, the diesel fumes are heavy, and my wife is heavy-lidded in the seat beside me. We stop for gas and Lili dashes to one of Nepal’s prized toilets, a dozen sets of male eyes from the faces of three separate ethnicities following her. The door bangs closed behind her, a poster flapping on it.

“Who’s that?” I ask Lajali and point at the red portrait through the bug-stained windshield.

“Prachanda,” she says, distaste on the edge of her words, “the Maoist leader.”

“So they’re really in the political process now?” I ask, trying out my studies.

“Well, they’d like to be,” she says, doubtfully, “but they still have their army and guns.”

A half hour later we cram into what passes for a “line” of cars. Lajali steps out with great dignity and gracefully butts her way through a thick, howling mob of travelers to the door to a wooden hut wherein stone-faced soldiers scowl and shuffle. The crowd parts for her, her gold jewelry flashing in the sun, her new, western clothes like a banner around her. She pays our fee and leaves our registration with the intelligence officers and we move on.

We’ve survived only a few blind passes of cement trucks painted with wild colored portraits of various Gods, when we carom around a long bend and find ourselves to be only number two in another lineup. But this time there are no camo uniforms to be seen, only a loose group of young people talking animatedly, a pair of them holding a sagging cable like a gate across the highway. On a little bluff on the shoulder a grinning boy waves a red flag as if in victory. My American passport grows hot in my front pocket, like kryptonite. Krishna and Lajali are notably quiet. Lili touches my hand. Through the window, a big toothed, mustached, very dark man in front of a makeshift barbecue extends a mushy object toward my wife and offers it with his eyes and a smile.

“You want a communist onion, Lili?” Lajali says, and though she covers her teeth as she smiles, it sounds more like a forced attempt at levity than genuine.

A very young village girl, clad in loose blue clothes like a tropical flower, skims up to Krishna’s window. He rolls it down halfway. It hits me then like an anthropological hammer strike: here is a low caste village girl boldly bending to peer into the face of a Brahmin. This does not happen all that often. There is an exchange, words that I have no hope of deciphering but are certainly infused with tension. There is a pause, then a colorful bill exits the car and a blue slip of paper takes up residence on the dashboard. The men raise the cable suddenly, as if we need to hurry, and we speed into the east. I think Lili and I both expect some explanation from our generally very attentive hosts, but none is forthcoming. Finally, on a quiet stretch of road above a raging, brown river, I ask.

“So what was that check point about?”

“Maos,” our hosts say in unison, not kindly.

“And what did they say?”

A few beats pass. Then Krishna answers.

“Oh, they were charging their tax. I gave them twenty rupees and the girl says to me, ‘is that all you have for the people?’ I told her to take it or leave it.”

As we settle into the swerving rhythm of the journey, I begin to wonder in earnest what it is I have for the people here, if indeed we—with our Euros and our educations and our liberal guilt and our good intentions and our Brahmin counterparts and our nascent school and orphanage—have more for the people than the smiling guerrillas that have allowed us passage.

Atico Primero

Well, here it is–the new place, the first home.

I don’t know what to say. It’s like that Talking Heads song: “This is not my beautiful wife, this is not my wonderful house….How did I get here?”

Or something like that.

Oh, and I live in the sky.

I’m undeserving. I hope to share this wildly gorgeous space with you (at least those of you who bathe regularly and love me for who I am).





Got Holiday Gifts?


If anyone is at a loss for what to get that daft Kentucky aunt, or that hippie Oregon cousin, or that overdecorated mother, or that impossible to shop for friend, or that communistic neighbor, or whatever….

Know This: I’d be happy to transport to the United State of America and then send on to you a gorgeous Nepalese wall hanging as pictured below. The cost is 25 Euros/32$. I’ll mail it on my dime. All proceeds go to benefit our projects in Nepal. We work with both orphans and children with Cerebral Palsy. For more info dig:

www.sathisansar.org

Or let me know at: nhasting@earthlink.net

Thanks for your solidarity–these things are truly beautiful and a bargain in addition to being for the best of causes.

Photo of the Year


Thank God the terrorists haven’t won!……

While “Progressives” Celebrate

While all of us liberal progressives cheer the slaughter of the Elephants last Tuesday (and, hey, don’t get me wrong–I’m not above being cheered by the lesser of two evils), the Israel military has used the long media shadow cast by the elections to viciously attack the civilians of Gaza once again. They do so in “in retaliation” for rocket attacks that have injured Israelis; this month the Israelis have killed almost 100 Gazan civilians, mostly toddlers and women.

I doubt that anyone whose eyes find this blog would turn those eyes away if, while walking down the street, you witnessed a grown man brutalizing a woman or a girl.

I suppose I wonder: how would it affect your feeling if that woman or girl, swollen and bloodied, picked herself up again and stood defiant before the coward? Would your heart give you permission to continue walking? Or would it require that you stand beside the victim who refused to be one?

Enough from my comfortable mediterranean perch. Please read the link below–it is not sorrowful or hateful, it is inspiring and courageous in a way that my blog won’t ever be.

“We faced the most powerful army in our region unarmed. The soldiers were loaded up with the latest weaponry, and we had nothing, except each other and our yearning for freedom. As we broke through the first barrier, we grew more confident, more determined to break the suffocating siege. The soldiers of Israel’s so-called defence force did not hesitate to open fire on unarmed women. The sight of my close friends Ibtissam Yusuf abu Nada and Rajaa Ouda taking their last breaths, bathed in blood, will live with me for ever.”

– Jameela al-Shanti, Palestinian Woman

We Overcame Our Fear

On Truth and Education: the Shifty Elephant and Skittish Donkey

The recent clash between the President and Senator John Kerry is too instructive to leave to the sensationalistic talking heads that miss the meat of what the event should lay on the nation’s table: the colossal hypocrisy of the Republican party and the equally sizeable spinelessness of the Democrats.

Senator Kerry told a group of college students last week that if they didn’t get an education they would end up “stuck in Iraq.” Later, clarifying, he insisted he’d been taking a swipe at Bush—who, obviously, has gotten stuck in Iraq. Bush and his Foxy minion Tony Snow, for their part, came out smugly swinging, providing the Commander in Chief the opportunity to claim, in front of a sympathetic audience, that Kerry’s comments were “insulting and shameful” and he owed the brave, intelligent men and women of America’s armed forces an apology. After unleashing a lot of bombast against the gall of these “Republican hacks” in “stuffed suits” and refusing to apologize, Kerry bowed to Democratic Party diplomatic heavy-handedness and did indeed apologize.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, in a nice Spanish-Indian bar in Barcelona, I sat with my close friend Alex who was visiting from Los Angeles. The Catalan wine was going down well and the place seemed to sow cathartic political discussion. After I decried the tactlessness of Kerry’s comments, the stupidity of handing such ammunition to Bush, Alex complicated the matter brilliantly and, I’m sure, will allow me to now paraphrase him:

“Wait a minute, though,” Alex said, “what if Kerry had used his comments as an opportunity? What if he hadn’t run from the truth of what he said or tried lamely to dissimulate it?”

The truth: in America we have a long tradition of doing exactly what John Kerry suggested—sending the poor and undereducated off to die. From WWI through the current oil-slick quagmire it’s been the immigrants, the inner city black and Latino youth, and the rural poor white youth that our Presidents and Senators ship off as bulwarks against fascism or cannon fodder for Exxon/Mobile.

What if Senator Kerry had kept his feet firmly planted in the soil of that truth? If he had said, “That’s right—I chose to go to Vietnam and I saw with my own eyes the brave, unprivileged people that were sent alongside me. And what is ‘shameful and disgusting’ is that the President and his friends in the oil industry are continuing this practice while stroking the ‘pride’ of dedicated soldiers.” How much might that have changed the incident, which will now be forgotten as nothing but another flap over “patriotism” in a long and dirty campaign season? Perhaps much would be different.

But no one out there in front of the Capitol is so different. That’s the point: even John Kerry, a combat veteran and avowed opponent of Bush, didn’t have the spine to stand up to the spin and bullying of the President and his silver spoon, draft-dodging ilk.

To me it represents the worst of the Democratic Party: spineless, simpering cowardice. And it represents the worst of the Republicans: shameless manipulation and, yes, whoring of the courage and spirit of America’s military to push forward an illegal, greedy war and Republican Senate campaigns.

But, in the end, Bush and Kerry come from the same social class and neither one of them will ever see their children’s blood spilled on the thirsty battlefields—in the name of ideology or oil. And maybe that spotlights the real inadequacy of our options for political leadership.

Out of the Freying Pan

(Note: so I’m in the midst of fighting for this essay–that is, submitting it to many publications and being repeatedly disappointed by very flattering rejections because everyone has already published at least one article on the subject. Thus it has found a temporary home here. But it represents a great deal of thought and emotion and work and if anyone has a lightning bolt of brilliance to hurl at me about where I might ought send the SOB, please do let me know.)

The tension in the air was as thick as the Carolina August that shared it. It carried right over from the classroom to the house party. In the Creative Nonfiction workshop, headed by our most senior CNF professor, a student had recently handed out a searing piece of memoir that had brought tears to many eyes. I can’t now recall all the details—I wasn’t in the class and never read the piece—but it included the news of the author’s father’s death. By all accounts it was an expert, poetic, deeply stirring and brave piece of art. Problem: in workshop, the author was forced to admit that his father was alive and apparently well.

The anger at this “betrayal” by other members of the class was pure and overwhelming; if there were some present that sided with the author, they were quite passive about it. I can recall bitter gazes in the wet eyes of a handful of young women as they swirled ice and relived the offense. By all accounts, though, the professor demonstrated his tenure in this particular trench by calling a cooling off recess upon the author’s announcement. He then reconvened by laying ground rules about how the imminent fray would take place and dominated the give and take of ire with authority and facilitation. He did not allow a feeding frenzy; on the contrary, he parlayed the occasion to broaden debate. In so doing, he retained the respect of both the enraged students and the controversial author.

The author truly believed what he’d done was permissible—to the point of becoming choked up himself during the ensuing discussion even as he insisted that the essay was to have a “part two” in which the truth would have been born out. To some extent though, particularly after the workshop, he mocked the naïveté of people who believed themselves capable of and qualified to demarcate the borders of a genre. According to the reflections of friends and colleagues who were present, I think it would be safe to say that his main aim was to toss a match onto that pile of rags to see the whoomph! Being a first-year student and virginal to all these things, my allegiance fell silently toward the author. On the whole, I found what he had done amusing and provocative, a cathartic cage-rattle in the stuffy academy. It was only with a great deal of personal and artistic evolution that I would come to see this author’s actions as destructive.

Let’s face it: literary culture has swung, arm in arm, with pop culture into the present societal moment. Our society is either adorned or infested with (depending on your appetite) reality television shows (Who Wants to Marry a Midget?), movies based on “real events” (think Spielberg’s latest, Munich), tabloids, twenty-four hour cable news channels, and expensive internet sites that offer nothing more than views of ordinary people going about ordinary lives. The range of voyeuristic pleasure that has taken root is diverse and undeniable. And, right alongside, memoirs and other nonfiction books have cleared considerable elbowroom on the endless shelves of novels. Some of these have risen from the ranks of the mere literary and actually become “popular”—Angela’s Ashes, say, or, perhaps most famously, Sebastian Junger’s A Perfect Storm. While Frank McCourt weathered some controversy himself for alleged exaggeration of poverty in his Irish boyhood, Junger’s is an interesting example for us here. The work crested as a book and a film with astounding success in both media, and yet no one seemed to care that, as nonfiction, it was an elegant crock—the significant part of the story takes places on a ship that was forever lost at sea. Yet you can be sure that the alchemy of nonfiction and its allure is what transformed it from a good story into a blockbuster.

So why, then, have we witnessed the firestorm of indignation over James Frey’s multi-million dollar best seller, A Million Little Pieces? After all, Junger was certainly guilty of invention and playing fast and loose with the facts in his opus—in fact, one could argue, the size and scope of Junger’s conjectures dwarf the liberties that Frey took. Frey portrayed himself as an outlaw wanted in three states by wildly fabricating and embellishing events—for example, he transforms a detention of a few hours into various prison sentences of many months. He also conjured a role for himself in a train accident that killed two high school acquaintances. Frey went to fictional lengths to establish himself as the bad guy (or as he himself writes, “Criminal”) he needed to be for the book to function. Junger, on the other hand, sketches a detailed chain of events that no living being even witnessed.

Here’s the two reasons why people are enraged with Frey, in this author’s opinion: one, people knew that Junger was conjecturing. He made that rather evident by the way he structured his story, the plain fact of what he set out to do, and in his introductory remarks. Two: people don’t care if you make up a shipwreck tragedy because the story is not an intimate experience; it’s impersonal (except perhaps for those readers who have been shipwrecked). People do care if you shamelessly lie and embellish in the course of an intimate, wrenching tale of violence, death, loss, love, and addiction. People really care. Oprah cares (as she made evident when she stripped Frey of his Oprah’s Book Club title and gave him the third degree during a second appearance on her show).

And people in MFA programs care. I can attest that even excluding the drama of the undead father the debate about the parameters of genre is alive and crackling in the classrooms. In fact, it was probably the most common theme of discussion in my three years in a MFA program, both inside the classroom and at other social and literary events. To their credit the faculty (intentionally or not) brought this controversy alive for us by often disagreeing. And we enjoyed visiting writers who were quite markedly at odds with one another as well.

For the sake of simple explication, let’s say there are conservatives and liberals. The extreme of conservative position can be illustrated by the notion I once heard expounded—quite seriously—that “if you can’t remember what color shirt your father was wearing on that evening in 1978, you can’t just invent it.” Batting for the liberal side, we heard an elegant young memoirist insist that composite characters—that is, characters composed of two or more real life people—are entirely conscionable and even a good idea. I’ve been told by other liberal mentors that the invention of dialogue, scene, and just about anything else is not only ethical but necessary to write a memoir.

So, the conservatives might say: “do your homework, do your legwork, research, fact-find, and piece things painstakingly and responsibly together.” Liberals might retort: “If we haggle over details, we’ll never get the story told—emotional truth is more important than factual truth.” It is not surprising that most conservatives, in my experience, are journalists and biographers, and most liberals are memoirists and essayists.

For my part, I was an abashed subscriber to liberalism for quite some time, especially as my own essay/memoir collection unfurled and I found hard facts as elusive as I found colorful, vague recollections abundant. I never wrote—or at least never handed over—even a paragraph that I was uncomfortable calling The Truth; I toed the line in my conscience as best I could, albeit with an increasing desire to be done with my nonfiction thesis and move on to the land of liberty: fiction.

As a “TA” (read: adjunct professor), I carried the incendiary potential of this debate into the undergraduate classroom. I searched out the most liberal of memoirs and essays and pressed my students on why certain actions were or were not permissible. They stumbled for a while, unsure of their authority, but little by little they learned that there truly were no “right” answers, that the debate was wide open and they were invited in. We looked, for example, at Michael Ondaatje’s memoir Running in the Family, in which he gives a long, lyric narrative account of his grandmother’s last moments riding flood waters through a small town in Sri Lanka—something he was not present for. We read Joanne Beard’s excellent collection, The Boys of My Youth, in which she writes from the perspective of a coyote running alongside her car in the desert. In another piece she details the play-by-play of a massacre carried out at her place of work one day when she went home early. Several of her colleagues perished.

I found that a majority of my students—most of whom had been severely warned by high school teachers against ever using the word “I” in a piece of writing—had strong opinions. Some believed that if Ondaatje had indeed studied the newspaper reports and oral histories from Sri Lanka, then he had a basis upon which to piece together such a narrative. And although Beard had clearly done more research to back up her massacre piece, some of these same students deemed her wrong to take liberties with such subject matter. Clearly there was—and is—much confusion and emotion that imbues this question, which I would submit is not merely “academic” but actually integral to human storytelling in any form.

However, all muddling aside, my students helped me to reach the most valuable lesson lurking in all of this. They taught me by their participation and by their fabulous, terrible, nascent attempts at creative nonfiction. Their excitement—the palpable, rewarding, cathartic energy—did not come from being able to “make stuff up” about their lives. Rather, what they found inspiring and energizing and what they helped one another to do was to find the language to tell the truth about their lives, the capacity to make their stories valuable and lasting and real and readable—and therefore accessible to the rest of the world. They became authenticated and confident and real to themselves. And they became more thoughtful, sensitive, and clear with their peers. By the time the semesters petered out, and portfolios swelled, and we revisited the question of genre borders a last time in light of all their work, I heard the same wisdom from many of them: there exists a contract of trust between a memoirist/essayist and the reader. There is no way to draw or govern the parameters of a genre—it is absolutely impossible (no matter how many Smoking Gun-like website crucify guys like Frey). And, in this sense, parameters cannot exist. For this reason, an author has to do his or her best to tell the truth, acknowledge when he or she is conjecturing, and never, ever deliberately lie.

Ironically, after crafting such a monstrous retrospective of himself, James Frey would like us to believe the best of him: that he was an innocent newcomer, a wide-eyed rookie to the game of nonfiction literature, and that his lies and embellishments were protected by the invisible provisions of artistic license (and we must suspect that his publishers encouraged this thinking). At worst, Frey is a cynical and dishonest opportunist. Whatever the case, I think it inarguable that Frey has done a great disservice to this still-raging argument and thereby to the genre by prioritizing creative license above his responsibility to tell the truth compellingly—as my teenaged students learned to do quite well with considerably less experience. He showcased the worst of the liberalism and justified the conservatives’ most severe charges and put the credibility of Creative Nonfiction at risk. He screwed things up for other courageous books about addiction and grief and recovery both by planting wild doubts in the readership’s collective mind and by making some publishers as skittish as beaten dogs before the prospect of putting out anything similar.

But, in the end, maybe we should be grateful for Frey even as we condemn him; perhaps we should see this is an opportunity disguised as a betrayal. Maybe by igniting the pandemonium and hauling this academic discord out onto the public stage, it will become clear once and for all that people expect an authentic attempt at the truth, that as authors we must have our lines drawn sharper, our personal ethics healthier, that there is an innate and special trust in the genre despite the implausibility of bylaws. It occurs to me now that through all of this we might see something that escapes us in the tawdry cyclone of reality television and tabloids and prurient news: that maybe there are elements of decency, empathy, and solidarity that call us to read difficult stories like Frey’s. Maybe we want to believe in love and healing and surviving so furiously that we simply won’t stand for any corrupt flourishes. Maybe we should be thanking Frey—even if he is laughing, all the way to the bank.

Congratulations Hermano!

Today is a happy day (anyone who knows me knows that I’ve probably never written that particular arrangement of words before in my life, so it’s truly special) as I’ve learned that my little brother was admitted to the University of Washington Medical School. He deserves it like crazy, like Ren deserves Stimply, like Itchy deserves Scratchy, like Bush deserves the guillotine, like Nasrallah deserves Olmert…but I digress.

He could have hustled to have strings pulled to get into a number of excellent schools but he didn’t–he busted his bony ass and got into the best one in the country. So bravo, KC, lift a bottle for me and for happier times than we’ve had in the last years.

If anyone wants to write him, do (don’t worry, you won’t get locked into any long-winded correspondence; he sucks at email):

caseyluke@yahoo.com

Hurrah!

The Room Has Fallen

Over the pond and back again to the thick of Dixie where Falling Room was conceived and born. Ok, it wasn’t conceived there and, furthermore, I robbed the title of this blog entry from Tom Kunz, who deserves all the credit for documenting the three days on Wrightsville Beach. Well, he deserves credit for more than mere documentation, but we’ll save that for his wedding day.

UNCW was kind, generous, and loyal enough (thanks Bekki and Sarah especially) to bring me back out to the old, muggy stomping grounds and read from my first book. I hope that someday I can bring them some kind of good fame and not merely the reputation of accepting delinquent leftist weirdos to their supposedly “prestigious” program. While the reading itself went very well, being handed the key to the CRW
Department’s beach house for three days was pretty much the crown of it all. Dave Smith rolled out from the black banks of the Lumbee River, Tom Kunz traveled all the way from Monkey Junction, and Marc and his lovely daughter Isabelle merely descended half the eastern seaboard. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves (dangerous business, I know), but the point of this short was to say this:

I left Wilmington last week through a blur of tears. What composed this attack of emotion is complex and hefty and rooted in the torrid history of my life in the last five years. But suffice it to say that for far too long in the City of Azaleas I associated the place and many of the people with my grief; wrong circuitry got burned into my brain which instructed me that I’d be better once the chapter was over, as if it were the fault of the Spanish moss and purple storms and thick air that my father suffered and died or that I was stuck in a horrendous relationship. I realized far too late that my sorrows had nothing to do with the environment and, further, that I had fallen in love. Not only with semi-tropical Dixie, the quaint haunts of the Port City and Cape Fear, but also with several souls who were a blur to me for two thirds of the time I lived among them.

This is to say that my tears were mainly fueled by regret, but also by nostalgia and gratitude for having been gifted a chance to write my story on pillars of quiet love and loyalty.

Thank you Dave, Marc, Tom, Pat, Isabelle, Nate, Kimi, Heather and David for a memorable and sweet (if, ahem, blurry) weekend in the season’s last sun.

Ok, enough with that. Here’s the party.

Then it was out to South Carolina to catch up with some of my long lost kin, of whom I make a policy not to take pictures. Not because they’re not attractive, they are, but just for legal reasons….

Then to my sweet friend Jessica Smith, freshly home from Wales before splitting for the frigid northern reaches of Wisconsin for a panel on healing and writing with the fabulous Canandian poet and my friend, Rachel Rose. But I don’t have any pictures of Wisconsin either.

Here’s a picture of Jessica. She’s thinking about Fat Tony….

Ok, now’s she’s thinking about Kaya….

Ok, so it’s officially a NON POLITICAL BLOG ENTRY. How’d I do??? Let me know.

(peace)

(was that political?)